Op-Ed: Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing Non-Horror Recommendations
Lifelong friends and Hammer bros Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing are well known for their horror credentials, both together and separately. However, these May birthday boys certainly ventured into other genres, sometimes still together and occasionally even as the good guys! Here’s a chronological rundown of eclectic opportunities and a chance to see Lee and Cushing beyond the scares.
A Tale of Two Cities
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Dirk Bogarde (Death in Venice) stars in this fairly accurate 1958 British adaptation along with Donald Pleasence (Halloween) and the young, pretty, and ruthless Christopher Lee. Though the black and white photography and budget décor are dated, there’s a feeling of old-fashioned ambiance created by the monochrome tricorn hats and shadowy aristocratic houses. For being the epitome of Victorian literature and nineteenth century England, Dickens’ parallels on the injustices amid the Revolution and the upper class turnabouts of the guillotine come across exceptionally. While the unrequited love isn’t usually the first genre element we think of regarding Charles Dickens, there’s still plenty of espionage, intrigue, and adventure as the expected Dickensian twists and turns combine for an interesting blend of 1958, 1858, and the original Vive la France! Some of the time and place transitions or foreign situations may be confusing to those unfamiliar with the novel and the source history, and perhaps this edition better serves older scholars or wise students. However, unlike some of Dickens’ other interwoven and complex intricacies, this is actually a straightforward, swashbuckling tale. “It is a far, far better thing that I do than I have ever done…”
The Hound of The Baskervilles
This colorful 1959 Sherlock Holmes treat opens in the expected Hammer style, thanks to colonial prologues, lush Victorian looks, on the moors canine action, and our dynamic duo. Lee is once again handsome; smashing as the eponymous, snotty heir presumptive. It makes one wonder why he wasn’t cast as a traditional romantic leading man more. Peter Cushing is likewise suave as the famous detective. There’s a speedy flair and wit to his deduction, and Andre Morell (Ben-Hur) is quite the fun and capable Watson alongside a juicy, scene chewing supporting ensemble. Cinematic tricks, visual cues, and violent twists keep the hour and a half fast paced as the murder mystery threats and smartly timed puzzles unravel. Perhaps every generation wants to put its own stamp on Baker Street, so maybe fans of more contemporary or edgy Holmes renditions will find the dry British humor here too stuffy. However, oft Lee/Cushing director Terence Fisher keeps the suspense thrilling with traditional dramatic swells and charming performances. At the time, viewers were disappointed this wasn’t a horror tale – cutting short Hammer’s plans for its own Sherlock series – but both our boys would go on to separate Holmes adventures elsewhere. Fortunately, longtime fans of the cast, Sherlock, and Hammer can delight here.
Ex-soldiers John Richardson (One Million Years B.C.) and Peter Cushing leave 1918 Palestine in search of the lost city of Kuma which is ruled by the titular Ursula Andress (Dr. No) and her high priest Christopher Lee in this tasty 1965 prehistoric adventure. Granted, Bernard Cribbins (Doctor Who) as Cushing’s batman is sometimes a little too much with the Brit servant humor. Some of the jokes might be lost on today’s younger viewers, and the speaking volume is also too soft to hear against the epic music. Stereotypical tribal elements are compounded by the sixties film-making, as well as the onscreen interwar attitude. On the surface, this is another tale that seems like Hammer is branching out too far from its horror best. Fortunately, this remains a fun, lavish escapade – an entertaining desert romp with treasure maps, immortal trysts, and celestial rituals. The fantasy sets are delicious, the juicy ladies are dynamite, and the fiery action remains well paced. What’s not to like?
Nothing but the Night
Groovy seventies interiors, cool cars, old science equipment, and lovely seaside waves begat explosive cliffside accidents, townhouse suicides, a suspicious orphanage, and hospital experiments in this 1973 thriller. Scholarly doctor Peter Cushing and personally invested police colonel Christopher Lee must work together as red tape, politicking, and aristocratic histories impede the case. A meddling newspaper reporter adds workplace tensions – mixing business with pleasure as mysterious trust organizations and cult connections leave a traumatized young girl hanging in the balance. Hypnosis and tender moments reveal past traumas and fiery experiences, but our boys must do what’s right despite a conflicted mother and shady officials who think differently. Phone booths and tape recorders create nostalgia for viewers now; but fedoras, silhouettes, and careful lighting schemes invoke a noir mood to match the procedural corruption. Initially, there isn’t any horror to the converging crimes. However, freaky deaths and well done child performances imply potentially supernatural twists. Audiences may find the this late mix of ritual occult meets straight crime lacking a cohesive finesse, and the science versus paranormal probably should have been one or the other. Thankfully, the fine cast and period investigation flair bring home the shocks, surprises, and bonfires in a spirited Guy Fawkes finale.
At the Earth’s Core
Peter Cushing adds wonderful charm and humor alongside Doug McClure (The Virginian) and Caroline Munro (The Spy Who Loved Me) in this 1976 Edgar Rice Burroughs adaption. Fluorescent pink smoke, plastic plants, and very bad rubber creatures accentuate the obvious backdrops, and the faux names are tough to pronounce. Yet all the underground humans conveniently speak English. It’s difficult to tell who is who in crowded fight scenes, but look at me awe zooms slow the action pace. Unfortunate “master race” wording and other stereotypes are also inappropriate today; white savior educate the primitives and free the slaves plots meander without any real goals or moral considerations. Thankfully, simplistic, outdated literature and hokey production aside; the Victorian fantasy, steampunk technology, spectacles, gears, and gizmos remain heaps of fun. Top hats, umbrellas, and posh waistcoats that survive all the roughness counter the totally impractical preposterous science. Homoerotic battle bonding and kinky scenes with giant beasts swooping down to take the women add adult suggestions while ahead of their time high tech and dinosaur bird theories strengthen the intriguing if disproved premise. Ninety minutes may be too long, but there’s enough whimsy and an exciting multi-level final battle to keep this adventure entertaining for the whole family.
Christopher Lee joins an an all-star cast including Jack Lemmon (Some Like it Hot), James Stewart (Harvey), Olivia de Havilland (Gone with the Wind), in this third installment of the seventies transportation calamity franchise that sends the 747 out of the skies and into the ocean. Sure, certain equipment and mechanics are out of date, but the unique mix of airline frights, hijacking accidents, and aquatic dangers remain multi-level tense. The search and rescue half of the film feels more like a documentary with procedural explanations that have us looking up if this is how it’s really done these days or if it’s all hyperbole and liberties keeping the action scary cool. Although viewers can’t expect much character development amid the crowded cabin, under pressure machinery, and running out of air ticking clock; one by one the stars have their own in peril moments. This aged but still in their primes and now largely late ensemble creates a certain nostalgia even if the Airplane! spoofs have since capitalized on this kind of early disaster flick and CGI laden apocalyptic blockbusters are a dime a dozen today. Fans of the cast can enjoy all the talent coming out to play in this surprisingly intense yarn.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story
This 2016 offshoot set before the original Star Wars certainly has pleasant visuals, pretty planetary vistas, and intergalactic cities; but the spectacle doesn’t overtake the sad family separations, extremism, and bleakness of life under The Empire. Hopelessness, near gone Jedi philosophies, competing rebellion tactics, and doubts on whether a life like this is worth living unify the stands taken when lines are drawn. The audience wants these rebels to succeed regardless of the consequences – after all we know the stolen Death Star plans make it to Star Wars. Apparent rewrites, reshoots, and re-arranged editing, however, make for poor dialogue, confusing planet hopping, and ridiculously simple flick the switch/press the button/insert the data tape results. Fortunately, older stars and returning characters from this galaxy far, far away anchor the franchise hallmarks; including a digital revival of Peter Cushing as Grand Moff Tarkin. The superb technical achievement isn’t noticeably out of place, and I positively love the deserved respect for such a critical role and careful attention to detail. However, more than anything, the composite just reminds viewers that it isn’t really Peter Cushing. Being aware of the wizardry distracts from the sophisticated catharsis leading up to the hours before Star Wars, and there are definitely uncomfortable moral implications on using a late actor’s likeness on a body double. For all its impressiveness; archive footage, a blurry hologram message, or onscreen video communiques would have sufficed.